Sunday, September 11, 2005

Who wrote the Banana Boat song?

I always thought the Banana Boat Song was written by Harry Belafonte. In fact, most references credit him as the writer. However, a few months back I came across some startling information in a book about the history of the Second City theater company. As part of a bio of an early cast member, Alan Arkin, is the following:
Alan Arkin, before doing The Compass in St. Louis, and then The Second City in Chicago, had been part of a singing group called The Tarriers, for whom he cowrote "The Banana Boat Song", which was later sold to and popularized by Harry Belafonte. Alan eventually quit the group, no longer wanting to be standing in a spotlight wearing silk pants singing made-up folk songs.

Really? Now there's a stomper of a trivia question to pull out. But can it be verified? On this Kinks website - they recorded a version on the "Everybody's in Show-biz" album - the written by credits go to Darling/Carey/Arkin. Those are the member of The Tarriers.

Erik Darling, of The Tarriers, has a website and writes:
A manager by the name of Art D’Lugoff got us a last-ditch audition for a hole-in-the wall company called Glory Records. It made no difference how small Glory was or where they were located. Somebody, finally, wanted to record us and put out a single!

Glory Records gave us a hit, “The Banana Boat Song." Our version of the song was performed on the Hit Parade TV show for eight weeks. Without intending to, we had started the Calypso craze. We were not even singing Calypso--“The Banana Boat Song” was a Jamaican folk song and most of our material was North American folk music--but the music industry needed to label what we were doing. Every time we appeared on a TV show, the set was palm trees and bananas, or pilings, barrels and docks, or all five. We were covered by Capital Record’s version of the same song, “Day-O," by Harry Belafonte. With Capital’s power, as well as Belafonte’s ability to dramatize songs and perform, it is Belafonte’s version of the song that is remembered to this day. I sing the original version that started the craze on the Child, Child CD.

Now that confuses the story. According to this, Arkin wasn't a cowriter and The Tarriers were just given a song to sing. What other sources of confusion can I find?

The Alan Arkin wiki page doesn't mention it, but it once did as seen in this google cache. Checking the Harry Belafonte wiki, Arkin is credited for the composition.

Following a link to Folkera, we find this in the Tarriers bio:
Rose agreed to let the three Tarriers record on their own, and booked a Manhattan studio in late fall 1956 to produce a single. The highlight of the session was "The Banana Boat Song," a fusion of two Jamaican folk songs that Darling first heard Bob Gibson perform in Washington Square. Released in November 1956, it became Glory Records' second national hit, rising to No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart. Again, RCA Victor quickly capitalized on that success, belatedly releasing a single of "Day-O" from Harry Belafonte's best-selling Calypso album.

Hmmm. this puts it back as an existing song, and The Tarriers were just the first to capitalize on it.

But wait, there's more. Harry Belafonte wasn't the only one trying to follow the success of The Tarriers; Shirley Bassey also release a version:
In late 1956, a chart race ensued amongst the different versions of "Banana Boat Song". In the UK and America, it was Belafonte who did best. Shirley did well, though, to also reach the top 10 with her version of the song, making it her first top 10 hit in Britain. The only thing in common with Shirley and Harry's versions seems to be the "day-o" chorus. Her version is closer, lyrically, to the version by US band the Tarriers and it is theirs which hers was clearly based on. Their version peaked at #15 in the UK and #6 in the US. Other charting versions in the US on the pop charts were by Sarah Vaughan, Fontane Sisters and Steve Lawrence.

Erik Darling, Bob Carey and Alan Arkin formed the Tarriers, who wrote Shirley's version of Banana Boat Song.... When they were allowed to record on their own, "Banana Boat Song" was a highlight of their first recording session. It was a mix of two Jamaican folk songs that Darling had heard performed in Washington Square.

Looks like we're getting closer to the truth. Neither Arkin or Belafonte is the author of the "Banana Boat Song." It's a traditional song and the most we can say is that the same song has a number of arrangements. What does Calypso world have to say?
The song was first recorded in England around 1954 by Trinidadian vocalist and actor Edric Connor. Connor called it "Day Dah Light (Banana Loaders Song)" and included it on an album of Jamaican folksongs that was not widely distributed. In 1956 two new arrangements of the song were recorded independently by Caribbean-American singer Harry Belafonte and the Tarriers, an American group that interpreted folksongs. Belafonte's version, adapted by songwriter Irving Burgie, was titled "Day-O" and was released both as a single and on his Calypso album. The Tarriers heard the song from another interpreter of folk music, Bob Gibson, who had traveled to Jamaica. Their version, called "The Banana Boat Song," is actually a medley with another Jamaican folksong: "Hill and Gully Rider." Both the Tarriers and the Belafonte versions of the song shot to the top of the pop music charts in early 1957.

Great, now I have to track down Edric Connor. In 1952, he released Songs From Jamaica. One of the songs is "Day De Light." Has the liner notes say, this is a banana-wharf song, sung by carriers who sometimes work through the night loading the ships with bananas. There is a clip of the song on that page; however, it's in Real Audio and I'm not downloading that. What's wrong with mp3s? Mr. Connor also had a bit of a film career, including a role in "Moby Dick."

Here's a site I should link to: The Originals. And he tracks what I've pretty much uncovered about the Banana Loader's Song. To recap:
  • It's a traditional song, wih no knownn author
  • 1952 - First known recording by Edric Connor
  • 1956 - The Tarriers release their version
  • 1956 - In response, the Harry Belafonte version is released.
  • Then everyone starts recording it. While Shirley Bassey followed The Tarriers arrangement, most everyone else does the Belafonte version.

While I can't fin the audio for The Tarriers version, here are their lyrics:
Hill and gully rider, hill and gully (4 times).
CHORUS: Day-O, day-o - day-li-light and I wan' go home (repeat).

1. Well, I'm loadin' de banana boat all night long -
day-li-lght and I wan' go home. Hey!
All-a de workman sing this song -
day-li-light and I wan' go home. CHO:

2. Now I sleep by sun an' I work by moon -
day-li-light an' I wan' go home.
When I get some money gonna quit so soon -
day-li-light and I wan' go home. CHO:

3. Well, I'll pack up all my t'ings an' I'll go to sea -
day-li-light an' I wan' go home.
Den de bananas see de last of me -
day-li-light an' I wan' go home, CHO:

Hill and gully rider, hill and gully (3 times).

There you go. I've pretty much sucked this topic dry.


Blogger cyrusreject said...

all sources point back to Louise Bennett as the person instrumental in documenting this folk song. Louise Bennett worked with both Edric Connor and Harry Belafonte on their albums.

10/26/2006 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger dr jams said...

Don't forget Irving Burgie's claim to the song.

12/20/2006 07:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harry Belafonte's Director of Orchestra Tony Scott seems to have directed Harry to sing the chorus in this way, and apparently Harry did not like the folksy wya in the beignning, but Tony encouraged him to try it and it stayed.

12/25/2006 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

irving burgie only composed the background music for harry belafonte's version of the folk song. he did not invent the song. the song was from louise bennett, the folk-lorist...
in other words irving burgie is a poser.

1/23/2007 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Julia Riber Pitt said...

Very interesting.

5/28/2007 08:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belafonte's version was written by William Attaway, author of the novel, "Blood on the Forge."

6/09/2008 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that the song was actually written by popular singer/actor Jamie Coles. There is some solid evidence to back this up. It was in fact written on a camping trip when Coles felt lonely and "wanted to go home".

2/23/2009 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

I think you did a fantastic job! Now can you tell me why I can't find a recorded version of "Island in the Sun" sung by Jimmy Cliff?

1/08/2011 10:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I use the melody with new words?

2/22/2012 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

attaway,wrote the banana song.bill attaway.

5/28/2012 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Same as what happened with The Lion Sleeps Tonight-- after someone else got a hold of it, the originator had nothing to show for it (I'm sceptical about "traditional song"; it's what they said about "Mbube/Wimoweh/tThe Lion Sleeps Tonight. Not so, in that case.)

8/20/2012 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous William Attaway said...

1/25/2013 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and what about Stan Freberg's version called "Banana Boat (Day-O)? On Capitol Records ‎– F3687, Stan is the only one listed, yet the melody and lyrics are nearly the same.

2/18/2014 09:58:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

i whish i could write a song on boad :p good work admin. with best regards: nimra yasmeen at

7/05/2014 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/27/2015 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I saw an Alan Arkin interview 'Alan Arkin : Live from TCM classics where he spells out the history of his relationship to the 'Banana Boat Song'. He said in '56 he and the Tarriers sang it as 'The Banana Boat Song', and Belafonte sang it as 'Dey-O'. Then, as he tells it Belafonte changed the name to 'The Banana Boat Song', and says of themselves and Belafonte 'We chased each other up the charts and Belafonte came out on top, and then he sued us. . . this was laughed out of court because we both stole the song. It was a Jamaican folk song.'

Actually, according to Wikipedia, Belefonte had the same song out a year earlier which he called 'Star-O, which was changed in '56 to Day-O. It would seem to me that he might have coined, or first made famous the musical refrain, 'Day-O', and sued over that, since the two previous versions done by Edric Conner and Louise Bennet, who are credited as Belafonte's sources, did not have 'Day-O' in their versions. Arkin actually says they 'used 'Day-O' in their version, but nevertheless insisted in the interview that the suit had no basis.

8/27/2015 04:42:00 PM  

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